“I always did something I was a little not ready to do. I think that’s how you grow. When there’s that moment of ‘Wow, I’m not really sure I can do this,’ and you push through those moments, that’s when you have a breakthrough.”
— Marissa Mayer (former CEO of Yahoo!)
At 19, Shalini married Major Avinash Singh. She continued with her studies also after marriage. Two years passed happily, and the couple was blessed with a child in 1999. Major Avinash was posted to Kashmir at the time which meant long hauls with little or no connection. But the two made it work. Mobile phones were not common those days, so the only means of communication was the STD booth. To talk for five minutes both of them had to wait for about an hour. Shalini remembers how Avinash would enjoy listening to the meaningless chatter of his baby son.
Shalini was managing the roles of a mother, a wife, and a student, waiting for the day when the family would be united. But fate willed otherwise. On 28 September 2001, she got a message from Major Avinash’s unit that he had been seriously injured after killing four terrorists. He attained martyrdom at the age of 29. Shalini was a widow at 23 and a mother of a two-year-old son.
Initially, she was in a state of shock. She did not know how to react to people coming to offer condolences. She even thought of ending her life, but the face of her son made her change her mind. She gathered courage and decided to live, if not for herself, at least for her son Dhruv, who was oblivious of the catastrophe that had hit the family. “Dhruv brought life back in me. I had to be strong, for him. I decided to join the Army. I was not sure how I would do it. I was very fragile and delicate physically. I was a pampered child of my family. When I met his unit officers at my home, I told them that I had decided to join the Army,” she says.
Some of her friends and relatives were supportive of her decision, but others tried to dissuade her given the tough training and difficult service conditions in the Army. Moreover, Dhruv was a toddler and dependent on her. Shalini thought that Dhruv was her greatest strength and she would not let it become her weakness. She focused on the future and decided that she would do all it took to become an Army officer.
She dropped out of her postgraduate course and enrolled for coaching to prepare for the Service Selection Board (SSB) interview. Her efforts bore fruit, and she was called for an interview at SSB Allahabad in December 2001. Barely three months had passed after the death of her husband. As the interview was one week long, she asked her parents to accompany her. They stayed separately with Dhruv as they were not allowed inside the SSB campus. At a fixed time she would go to a nearby park where her parents would be waiting with Dhruv. This was to enable her to feed him as he refused to eat from his grandparents. Co-candidates who watched the events unfold lauded her. While she put up a brave face during the day, she couldn’t help crying at night, as she missed her son.
Tears of joy rolled down her cheeks when she got the news that she had cleared the SSB interview. Shalini was required to stay for another week for the medical tests. She convinced Dhruv to return with his grandparents, and the little boy happily agreed.
After being found medically fit, Shalini reported for training to the Officer’s Training Academy (OTA) in Chennai. On the one hand, she was feeling the pangs of separation from her three-year-old son, and on the other hand, the gruelling physical training exhausted her daily.
She completed the rigorous six-month training in September 2002, and passed out as a commissioned officer. It was a sea change from saree/suits to OG uniform and army boots. So strong was her determination that she achieved her dream just three weeks before Major Avinash’s first death anniversary.
When Major Avinash was posthumously awarded the Kirti Chakra (the second highest gallantry award), it was Shalini who proudly received it from the then President Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam.
For years she dedicatedly served the country and fought to break the glass ceiling as a single mother working in a male-dominated environment. She only quit the defence force to help her then 16-year-old son. After that, she worked in an MNC to support her son and plan for his future. Dhruv has since appeared in the NDA entrance examinations. His dream is to become an Army officer and do his parents proud.
Settled in Delhi, the former captain did not stop winning at life. Fifteen years after the death of her husband, 39-year-old Shalini went on to be crowned ‘Classic Mrs India — Queen of Substance 2017’, a title apt for the woman of steel that she is.
Captain Shalini is a spectacular example not just for the many army widows who undergo tremendous difficulties after the loss of their husbands but also for women and girl children across India. Her story will inspire them to not give up, not even in the face of personal loss. Her struggle and never-say-die attitude will continue to inspire women for years to come.